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Babi Yar

Posted by Mad Mitch on  UTC 2016-10-03 10:41

Over the next five years, as the 75-years-ago cursor rolls over the years 1941 to 1946, we shall have an almost daily opportunity to mark some outrage or other.

Today's outrage would be the massacre of Babi Yar near Kiev that took place on 29 and 30 September 1941 during the Germans' push through Ukraine. 33,771 Jews – one can rarely fault the Germans for their bookkeeping  – were marched line by line into a deep ravine at a brickworks, made to lie on the corpses of the previous line then shot in the back of the head. The German Army, the SS and the local police worked in balletic harmony.

We select Babi Yar for notice today because it was the largest execution of its sort that took place in the Soviet Union. It can stand as a proxy for all the other, smaller, actions of 'cleansing' that occurred during the Germans' presence in the East. There were a lot of them. After the systematic executions of 29 and 30 September, Babi Yar was used as an execution site for two more years. More shooting, but less bookkeeping: we have to guess – 100,000? 200,000? Who knows?

During their retreat in 1944 the Nazis tried to hide what they had done, thinking that subsequent generations of Germans in the 1,000-year empire might not understand what had to be done to ensure that they were freed from the semitic pestilence. In Babi Yar the retreating army forced Russian prisoners to exhume the corpses and burn all traces. The action was incomplete. In their haste the army blew up the ravine with whatever human remains it still contained.

Nearly all of these outrages went unremedied. After the war, a handful of top-level commanders were hung or committed suicide at Nuremburg. The great mass of participants – the officers, the pullers of triggers, the herders, the guards, the police, the officials, the underlings who prepared the executioners' lunches in the field kitchens – all those who survived the other horrors of the eastern front slipped back into postwar Germany, clutching their Persilscheine. Postwar Germany was a country that was rebuilt by not asking too many questions. The myth of the NS-Gewaltherrschaft was gratefully seized upon, a myth in which a few madmen forced 50 million innocent people unwillingly to do their bidding. Perhaps nations, just like people, have to draw a line between themselves and their past, a line that they never cross in order to preserve the sanity of their present.

And last, the rending pain of re-enactment

Of all that you have done, and been; the shame

Of motives late revealed, and the awareness

Of things ill done and done to others' harm

Which once you took for exercise of virtue.[1]

After the war, the one monstrous totalitarian regime, the Soviet Union, was tacitly grateful to the other monstrous totalitarian regime, the National Socialists, for the cleansing of their country. They obligingly obliterated the traces and the memory of these events.

In the case of Babi Yar the ravine was dammed and filled up with the effluent of the brickworks. On 13 March 1961, 55 years ago, the dam broke and the houses and factories of a new settlement, Kurenivka, were buried in liquid mud that still contained the remains of the dead of Babi Yar. The mudslide killed possibly 1,000 people, possibly more. Who knows? The second monstrous totalitarian regime kept that quiet, too.

We on this blog probably won't track this cursor too closely. The mind revolts:

Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind

Cannot bear very much reality.[2]


  1. ^ T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets, 'Little Gidding', II, 1942. NB: from the period under our cursor.
  2. ^ —, ibid, 'Burnt Norton', I, 1935.